Book Review: City of Masks by Mike Reeves-McMillan
SNAP JUDGMENT: An intriguing mystery in a beautifully inventive setting, written in a high literary style.
THE SETUP: Gregorious Bass is an honest, harmless nobleman who’s a nobody in his courtly home nation of Calaria. His master appoints him as envoy to the city-state of Bonvidaeo, a position that should be safe and low-stakes.
Bass comes to rely heavily on his Bonvidaoan manservant in his new home, however, because of the city’s odd custom: every person must wear a mask at all times. The masks not only reflect the character and social role of the person behind them, they shape how the person can act, speak, and think, in public and private. Acting counter to your own mask is a great crime.
But murder is an even greater crime, and when a mysterious figure in the mask of a Butcher kills one of Bass’s countrymen, his supposedly safe job puts him at the center of a deadly mystery…
REVIEW: Reeves-McMillan absolutely nails the elevated Gothic style of this novel. It’s told as succession of journal entries, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s even a one-act play embedded as a found narrative. The author’s command of language is fantastic, so the loquacious eighteenth-century narration is still appealing to a modern reader. The different narrators have very different voices– Celia’s motormouth journaling is especially fun– which provides nice variety.
In a speculative fiction book like this, with an intricate society, it’s indispensable to have a character like Bass as protagonist, who needs to learn the rules of his new home the same way the reader does. The rules of mask etiquette are detailed and internally consistent, and shape everything about the plot. But there is still a plot, and an exciting one; the book’s not just an excuse to pontificate about an alternate society.
This book has all the twists and revelations you’d expect from a story of courtly intrigue, and all the mistaken identities you’d expect from a story where everyone wears masks. There are thoughtful themes about identity woven throughout.
I listened to this as a free audiobook on Podiobooks.com, and loved Reeves-McMillan’s subtle delivery and choice of music. His Kiwi accent was lots of fun to my American ears, and helped establish the courtly atmosphere for me.